“The fall of the Empire, gentlemen, is a massive thing, however, and not easily fought. It is dictated by a rising bureaucracy, a receding initiative, a freezing of caste, a damming of curiosity-a hundred other factors. It has been going on, as I have said, for centuries, and it is too massive and majestic a movement to stop… The Empire will vanish and all its good with it. Its accumulated knowledge will decay and the order it has imposed will vanish.”
What you have just read is not an excerpt of a 7th century letter evaluating the decline of Roman or Byzantine power, nor is it the closing statement from a sociological paper presented at an Ivy league university. No, friends. These are the words of Hari Seldon, the central figure in Isaac Asimov’s novel Foundation. Originally published in 1951, the novel and its sequels chronicle the collapse of a galactic empire which has ruled uncontested for twelve thousand years. Seldon and his colleagues predict its collapse, as well as the course of action needed for societal recovery, through the fictional science of “psychohistory.” Psychohistory is a mathematical sociology using laws of mass action, particularly with populations in the millions over the course of several millennia. The predictions made by this science are inevitable and Seldon hypothesizes that it will be 30,000 years before a new Empire rises. In light of this evidence, Seldon creates a secluded colony of engineers, scientists, and craftsmen to preserve humanity’s collective knowledge through this galactic Dark Age. Seldon refers to this colony as called the Foundation.
Asimov’s psychohistory is the essence of science fiction. Sci-fi at its best looks at the present and imagines where it all evolves from there. Sometimes the imaginings are utopian (Star Trek) and sometimes they are bleak (Terminator). It is a genre that questions our contemporary (usually Western) culture, philosophies, and technological advancements. Ray Bradbury’s 1951 novel Fahrenheit 451 predicts televisions that occupy full living-room walls and headphones that fit inside peoples’ ears, known in his novel as “seashells.” Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson was published in 1992 just as the internet was spreading from companies and colleges into private homes. Stephenson’s lead character Hiro Protagonist is immersed in programs nearly identical to Wikipedia and Google Earth a decade before those platforms were launched. The ethical implications of cloning, genetic engineering, space travel, and clean energy have filled the pages of science fiction novels for over half a century. The Foundation series and other works like it use a futuristic setting to echo the events of history that should inform the present. Some such works question whether the course of the present age should be continued, while others, in the vein of Hari Seldon, wonder if the future consequences can be prevented at all.
If we agree that science fiction is (at its best) characteristically focused on the trajectory of the present as it moves forward into the future, one might argue that the Hebrew tradition began writing sci-fi over 2,000 years ago. In 586 BCE, the Babylonian Empire invaded the city of Jerusalem, marking the fall of the kingdom of Judah and the beginning of the Hebrew period of exile. The Hebrews were scattered throughout what is now Syria and Iraq, far from the land God had promised to them through the patriarch Abraham. It was during this period that the tradition of apocalyptic literature developed. The texts of Ezekiel and Daniel in the Old Testament, as well as others found in the Apocrypha, reflect on the history of God’s people and their current state of exile. They often incorporate imagery borrowed from their Babylonian captors, much of it otherworldly and descending from the heavens. The book of Daniel even includes Daniel’s engagement with Babylonian rulers, warning them of the fate their empire is moving towards in light of the political atmosphere of surrounding nations and the ecological conditions of the day. The book of Revelation in the Christian New Testament continues the apocalyptic tradition as John of Patmos observes the conditions of seven churches in Asia Minor and the growing hostility brewing in the Roman Empire. What follows a direct address to these churches is a series of visions describing the time of tribulation and suffering to come, while also ensuring that the eschatological hope of the Christian faith is on the horizon. Apocalyptic literature was written to remind its readers of the rhythms of history in light of contemporary experiences, always affirming the sovereignty of God while warning of the consequences of the present.
This is why Christian writers should write science-fiction. The Christian tradition sets forth not only an alternative understanding of the rhythms of history, but also calls its followers to actively engage with the contemporary zeitgeist. What are the implications of certain societal trends or cultural ideals? What are the far reaching effects of popular political policies or movements, and who falls into the margins as a result of these policies? Not only does the Christian tradition call us to such queries, but it also calls us to imagine what hope lies at the end of such a trajectory.
Simply put, Christians should write science-fiction because it is the apocalyptic literature of our day, embracing the art of narrative to examine what we have done, what we are doing, and where could it be taking us.
See ya later, space cowboy.